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  • Grace Owsley

Quick, Basic Pointers From the Dressage Judge’s Box

Six months since my last blog post! Ouch! I guess I’m overdue. I was inspired to write a post after last weekend. I was invited by the Central Texas Dressage Society (CTDS) to judge some overflow dressage tests they weren’t anticipating. Interest in the local schooling shows has been increasing to the point that shows are filling up very quickly, and this time they had too many entries. Thankfully, the venue allowed for an additional ring and viola I became the judge for Ring 2. The space could accommodate a 20mx40m ring, so all of the rides were low level or introductory tests. I could tell many of them were very new to dressage. This is a great thing, as I’m always thrilled by new juniors or adults that have interest in the sport and get involved.

I actually enjoy judging the very low levels- the Intro and training tests and the lead line kids. I feel like I get to see a wider variety of riders and horses. More importantly, I know it usually means the rider or the horse (or both) are just getting started and that’s so exciting. That means there is a purposeful and intentional step being taken to train the rider or horse in a meaningful and systematic way. I love dressage. What is the “correct” or “acceptable” way to train and ride dressage seems to always be under some kind of argument or debate, but any time somebody makes the effort to learn dressage basics or instill dressage fundamentals into their horse I consider it a win, not matter how they place at the show.

“... any time somebody makes the effort to learn dressage basics or instill dressage fundamentals into their horse I consider it a win, not matter how they place at the show.”

A Few Basic Tips From The Judge’s Box

I’m a L graduate, so I’m not a seasoned judge with years and years of experience and knowledge to impart as of yet, but after doing this for a while now, I see patterns. These patterns aren’t just what I see consistently in the intro riders, but sometimes the more seasoned riders as well. Here are some really basic pointers that all dressage competitors should consider.

1- Know Your Test

If you show dressage long enough, you will probably experience the dreaded off course error. Maybe you didn’t have a caller and forgot your next movement or turned the wrong way. Maybe you had a caller and either couldn’t hear them right, or you could and still made a wrong turn (I’ve done this, at a rated show no less)! Either way, things happen and it’s best to move on and not get flustered by it. The best way to avoid this is to KNOW YOUR TEST. Read and memorize every movement. Look at the requirements of the level (found at the top of the test sheets). Read the directives for each movement. This helps you know what the judge is looking for. Even if you plan to have a caller, you should still have your tests memorized and have practiced it from start to finish. This also gives you confidence as you ride the test if you know very well what is coming up and can better prepare for it ahead of time.

2- Ride Your Corners Correctly

If you look at your dressage tests, at the beginning you will likely see it tell you which way to track as you approach C (left or right). This is one example of a corner. You are to track left at C for example, and then you would be in the corner between C & H. Judges do not like it when you cut corners. Don’t do it. Also you need to make sure you are bending the correct way around the corner. For example, in that same corner C-H, you should be tracking left at C and then going into your corner with balance, clearly bending your horse left with enough bend as is appropriate for the size of the turn. It’s about the same amount of bend as you would for a half 10m circle. Whether or not the test specifically mentions a turn into the corner in a movement, we judges are still watching how you ride each corner, and it could become a modifier effecting your score in the current movement you’re in. On top of your score being effected, you should be riding your corners anyway. It helps to properly set you up for your next movement, or in preparation to be straight and balanced on the long side.

3- Size, Shape and Bend on Circles

One thing I see a lot in the intro riders while judging, especially the kids, is counter-bending the wrong way on circles. I have to give lower than 6.0 If you are not bending the correct way on a circle. If you look at what each judging number means, a 6.0 is satisfactory. Bending the wrong way on the circle is not satisfactory, so your score will be 5.5 or lower with me, depending on what else is going on. Something else I see from riders of nearly all levels is the incorrect size and shape of circles, whether 10, 15 or 20m. The most common issue is making a 20m circle an oval more than a circle. This is typically not only an error in geometry, but it is usually caused by the horse not being straight or consistent in their bend around the entirety of the circle. Drifting through the outside shoulder is a common culprit for oval circles. Falling in on the inside shoulder is a common culprit for a circle being uneven on both sides or too small. On top of working on the training basics, I recommend looking at diagrams of circles in measured rings. Notice where the circle “touches” in the space. For example, say you are doing 20m left at E in a 20x60 arena. Notice how the circle doesn’t go between S&R or V&P, you stay to the inside of those letters. If you’re doing your circle and notice you’re in between S and R, your circle will probably turn out to be a 24 meter oval. A lot of riders look down at their horse on circles instead of noticing where they are in the arena. Pay attention to where you are in the space and where the letters are.

4- Practice Immobile Halts

A perfectly square halt with a horse that is still, attentive, and soft. It’s what we all want but it’s rarely executed. Don’t forget to practice these at home. Other than USDF intro A, all the national tests have a halt at the beginning and end of the test. That’s 20 points at stake. Don’t forget to work on these at home before showing. Check out where my past blog posts are to find one I wrote last year dedicated to halts for some more pointers. One thing I will mention, is that your halt should be immobile for at least three seconds. Immobile meaning still. The horse should not be moving their legs or rotating their haunches, etc. Count to three after you establish a still halt before moving on. I have a lot of tips on my past halt blog, but one tip I will give here is to do a relaxing exhale into the halt. I feel it relaxes the rider into the seat and the horses seem to respond well to their rider physically and audibly relaxing.

5 - Check Your Scores & Percentages for Errors

I hate to say it, but scoring errors are more common than you think. Human error happens, and sometimes a coefficient is forgotten or a number is missed on the calculator. You need to look over your tests after you pick them up from the show office. Check to make sure the scorers put the right numbers in the “Total” boxes, and that the coefficients were added up properly. Then, use your own calculator or phone calculator to add up your scores, notice if the correct total was recorded, and then calculate your percentage (total score you received over max points possible). Make sure everything is correct. I have personally found my own tests incorrectly added up, and I often hear stories from others of the same fate. If you discover it at the show, especially right there at the office, you can remedy any errors. These errors can and do effect your scoring and placing, and that of others. This could even influence awards. Also please be honest if you find you were scored higher than you should have been. It’s only fair for other competitors that these errors are presented and fixed.

That’s it for now!

I should be submitting a blog about online horse show tips for a large and well known tack and apparel shop in the near future! If you’ve been following me on social media for a while, you can probably guess which tack shop blog you’ll find me on. In the meantime, be sure to stay tuned. Make sure to follow me on all the social media platforms, and you can sign up for notifications for this blog so you don’t miss a thing. Scroll down to see all the social media buttons, otherwise you can find me by searching for Grace Owsley Dressage :)

Thanks for reading, and be sure to share this post with any of your friends that could benefit.
Happy riding and happy competing!!!

***Saddle pad, stirrup irons, and pullover logo sweater in photos all from Riding Warehouse. Use code GOWSLEY for a discount on your cart on their website!

*Shoutout to Spot On Braiding Wax for helping make DJ's running braid look awesome.


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